The White Man’s Burden | William Easterly

Summary of: The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good
By: William Easterly


In The White Man’s Burden, William Easterly explores the inefficacy and failures of the traditional approach to addressing poverty and underdevelopment in developing nations. Easterly contrasts two schools of thought: the top-down planners, who believe that only big, bold plans drafted by Westerners can make progress against poverty, and the searchers, who argue for organic, bottom-up solutions that arise out of local knowledge and circumstances. This summary delves into the historical attempts to eradicate poverty, the reasons behind the failure of traditional strategies, and advocates a change in approach towards experimentation and feedback-driven aid initiatives.

Rethinking Global Poverty

The debate on poverty eradication in developing nations boils down to planners and searchers. Planners advocate for bold, top-down initiatives by Westerners backed with foreign aid. On the other hand, searchers believe that organic, bottom-up approaches rooted in local knowledge and initiated by developing nations are more effective. While planners call for the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals, searchers highlight the failures of past attempts to eradicate poverty. Successful small-scale indigenous projects, such as delivering pesticide-treated bed nets to the poor to combat malaria, are models of development assistance done right, according to searchers. The debate is between those who believe a Marshall Plan-like effort is the solution to poverty in developing nations versus those who advocate for using local knowledge to implement sustainable and effective solutions.

The Failure of Development Strategies

Planners have tried three strategies to bring prosperity to the developing world: the “Big Push,” market mechanisms, and political reforms but none of them have worked. The growth rates of the poorest and less poor countries are not significantly different, and democracy and the quality of government offer better explanations for growth versus nongrowth. The Big Push of aid has been tried repeatedly, but has produced few results. The failure of top-down market reforms is evident in Russia’s early 1990s “shock therapy” conversion from communism to free markets. Poor countries lack the necessary conditions for a thriving market, and without infrastructure bulwarks, the result isn’t a free market economy but a “flea market economy.” Poverty and underdevelopment might be just political problems, and development might succeed if victimized nations could replace their “gangster” governments. However, democracy cannot be imposed on a country, and donor countries often provide aid to antidemocratic governments in “strategically important” countries, which makes some evidence indicate that aid makes countries less, not more, democratic.

Reimagining Foreign Aid

Foreign aid has failed to deliver meaningful results due to bureaucratic hurdles, poorly designed loan programs, and neglected healthcare initiatives. The aid bureaucracy is plagued by apathetic feedback loops and misaligned incentives, leading to a diffuse focus on achieving utopian goals at the expense of essential needs. The IMF’s conditional loans strategy lacks flexibility and fails to consider local conditions, leading to unstable economies and debt defaults. Meanwhile, the western healthcare community continues to push costly treatments for HIV/AIDS, neglecting more cost-effective prevention measures and other diseases like TB. A non-utopian approach to foreign aid that addresses the most pressing local needs is necessary for meaningful progress.

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